After three straight years of resistance, and literally hundreds of customer requests for additional side dish options, we’ve finally done it: We’ve added French fries to our menu. But each time a customer calls or stops in, and asks, “Are your French fries hand cut,” we’re proud to reply, “Good lord, of course not.” And here’s why.
If you think back to the lousiest French fries you’ve had while dining out, chances are good that they were hand-cut and made in-house by a well-meaning cook who prides process over product. Even massive fast food chains like In-N-Out Burger, haven’t mastered the art of the hand-cut fry, offering limp, soggy suggestions of sadness that can’t even be saved by a “well done” request. Why are hand-cut French fries so notoriously fickle, and why do otherwise good chefs with the best of intentions insist on rolling the dice on hand cut fries? Let’s get into it.
Let’s start by being clear about one thing: Hand-cut fries, at their best, are outrageously good. Lightly crisp, golden brown, with a fluffy, almost mashed-potato textured inside, ideal for scooping up ketchup or mayonnaise, salt clinging to their crisp exterior? There’s almost nothing better in the world. However, this idealized version of a hand-cut French fry can be notoriously difficult to obtain, and for every basket of perfect hand-cut fries pulled from a hot oil bath, there are hundreds more that are just awful.
Why? French fry making at production levels of scale is a multi-step process. First, the potatoes must be cut, then soaked in cold water to rinse off excess starch, ideally at least overnight. Then, the potatoes are fried at a low temperature, then cooled quickly and “held” until they are ready to be fried again, at a much higher temperature. The goal is to have a potato that’s cooked through, without getting overdone; try cooking fries just once at high temperature, and you’ll end up with a French fry that’s tough and brittle and too dark on the outside, and raw in the middle.
There are multiple problems with this process, particularly for smaller-scale restaurants who anticipate a large volume of fry sales.
The first issue is time. While cost on raw potatoes is considerably less than the cost of frozen French fries, there is a labor component to all of that cutting, soaking, par-cooking, and cutter-die-washing.
The second problem is storage. Even a modest amount of French fries will quickly fill up multiple hotel pans for each stage of the cooking process, each taking up valuable real estate in your refrigerator. Even 25 pounds of potatoes could conceivably occupy 4-6 full-sized hotel pans, which are enough to fill an entire shelf in a 54″ refrigerator. What’s more, holding multiple batches of fries at varying degrees of doneness is a recipe for creating spoilage and potential waste.
Finally, there are just too many variables to try and control. Even if you have a consistent method for preparing every batch of fries exactly the same way every time, factors beyond your control can render a wildly different final product. For example, in the United States, different varieties of potatoes are available at different times of year. The starch content of these different potato types will yield different finished French fries. This means that the potatoes you cook in December, are going to be much different that the ones you cook in July. The age of the potato before it lands in your dry storage is also a factor; potatoes that have been sitting on the shelf at your distributor for a few weeks, will yield wildly different French fries than fresher potatoes. Hell, the ambient temperature inside the delivery truck, and the climates of the regions that truck passed through on the way to your door can affect potato texture and flavor. What about oil? Hand-cut fries tend to degrade fry oil much more quickly than their frozen counterparts, and the cleanliness of your oil at the time of frying greatly impacts the outcome.
Of course, there’s a shortcut in hand-cut fry making that saves a ton of time and produces more consistent results. If, after par-cooking, you freeze your hand cut fries, little crystals of moisture become trapped in the potatoes. When you do your final, high-temperature fry, those little moisture packets explode, rendering the soft, fluffy French fry interior that we’re going for. Of course, this begs the question: If you’re freezing your hand-cut fries to maximize texture, why not just start with frozen fries in the first place?
There are simply too many opportunities for error. Nail your hand-cut French fry production method perfectly every time, and you’re still bound to get a bum batch once in a while, and likelier more often than that. Why risk all of this time, labor, and storage on a $3 side dish that’s only going to turn out right about half the time, that will probably be soggy by the time they hit the plate, and that will generate countless Yelp reviews lamenting the overall suckiness of your fries?
The Argument for Frozen French Fries
Luckily, science and technology have provided a solution: The frozen French fry. Golden brown, fluffy, inexpensive, easy to store, and most significantly: Completely consistent. Frozen French fries are a technological marvel, and they produce a consistent product every single time. Mistreat them by letting them half-thaw, or by leaving them in the freezer for a year, or by frying them in oil that really should have been changed last shift, and you’ll still be rewarded with an order of French fries that’s absolutely perfect. Cook them yourself. Hell, let the kid who changes the paper towel roll in the bathroom cook them. Let them sit under a heat lamp for ten minutes. Re-drop an order that got cold. They’ll still be perfect, every single time.
Do you see McDonald’s mucking around with hand-cut fries? Of course not. They value consistency of product over almost everything else, because they know that the way to keep people coming back is to make sure that the hamburger they order in Argentina tastes exactly the same as the one they order in St. Paul, Minnesota. Customers want to know that the product they ask for is going to be every bit as good as it was the last time they ordered it. With hand-cut fries, that’s absolutely impossible to predict. With frozen fries, it’s a guarantee.
There’s one more thing that I think shouldn’t be overlooked: Frozen French fries are, objectively, perfect. (Thanks, science!) And as cooks, I don’t think we should be wasting a lot of time pursuing perfection that already exists, and which already pings the nostalgia centers of our customers’ brains.
Look, there’s a reason we don’t try to make copycat versions of Heinz 57 ketchup, or Oreo cookies. It’s because those things already exist, and they’re already perfect. We can make “cheffier” versions of them, with better ingredients and fewer preservatives and which may even taste better, but usually our “improved” versions will be disappointing, because they don’t match our hard-wired notions of what those things ARE. It’s the uncanny valley of condiment-making. Ketchup is ketchup is ketchup. Tomatoes and sugar and vinegar reduced and pureed may make a fine dipping sauce for French fries, but it’s not going to scratch your brain’s Heinz 57 itch, which has been burrowed into your brain stem since you were four years old. It’s just not.
It’s the same with French fries. When a customer orders fries, they want piping-hot, golden brown, crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle, salty matchsticks of fried perfection. And if modern food science robots have already provided us with these perfect, reliable, consistent, labor-free and inexpensive French fries, any time spent trying to replicate those results using raw potatoes and fingers crossed is a waste of time. That’s why when I hear a restaurant has hand-cut fries on the menu, I usually order something else.